Chicago Corset Costume

Aug 17, 2021 | Theatrical Costumes

One of the most iconic roles in musical theatre is Chicago’s merry murderesses in the Cell Block Tango scene. For these costumes, we wanted a dark look, but with a bit of sparkle. And the costume had to allow for some pretty big dance moves. So, I started started with a corset and made it dance-able. Then I added some period-appropriate show-girl elements, and paired it with basic black dance shorts and black fishnet tights.

Sizing Corsets

We decided that each of the murderesses should have their own look (to an extent), so I started with a different corset for each character. Several of the murderesses were double-cast in this production. Since corsets must be fitted, this required double costuming for each double-cast role. I selected the costume for those characters based on the  actor whose body type presented the biggest costuming challenge. 

When choosing a size for a corset, it is best to start with the bra size of the actor. The corset size can be adjusted down if needed (but not so much up). If the actor’s measurements fall between sizes, choose the larger size.

Selecting Corsets

Here are my notes on how I chose each base corset, by character:

    Chicago - Velma corset
    • Velma (Cicero): Velma is the ring-leader of the group, and the featured performer in the Cellblock Tango scene. She’s a professional vaudeville dancer who has seen it all, and is very street-wise. She killed her husband and sister when she discovered that they were involved in a tryst. Velma got a sleek, sophisticated corset, with a little extra bling added.
    • June (Squish): June is (was) a housewife, but a little bit street-wise. She stabbed her husband with a carving knife when he accused her of sleeping with the milkman (which she was probably actually doing). So I selected a corset that was a little sleeker and slightly sexy, but not too sophisticated.
    Chicago June corset costume
    Chicago Mona corset costume
    • Mona (Lipschitz): Mona is very sweet, and killed her artist husband after he went out looking for himself, and found several mistresses (and a mister). Mona got a super-girly, sweet, modest corset.
    • Hunyak (Uh-uh): Hunyak speaks only Hungarian, and is accused of chopping off her husband’s head. It is hinted that she is the only murderess in Cook County jail who is actually innocent. Hunyak got a pretty, sweet, youthful corset.
    Chicago Hunyak corset costume
    Chicago Annie corset costume
    • Annie (Six): Annie wants to be worldly, but is actually quite naive. She lived with her boyfriend, which was very progressive for the 1920s. But she poisoned him after she realizing that he was currently married to multiple other women. Annie got a practical corset, with a little bit of oomph added in the front lace-up.
    • Liz (Pop): This character is a bit housewife-y, and the actor was a larger woman, so I chose a more conservative corset for Liz. 
    Chicago Liz corset costume

      Making a corset costume dance-able

        Two adjustments are needed to make a corset into a costume that moves enough for dancers: (1) Replace any hooks with a zipper and (2) Replace the modesty panel with a stretch panel.

          Replacing any hooks with a zipper

            Corsets almost always have a lace-up panel. This can be at the center front, the center back, or sometimes even on a side. The purpose of this panel is to allow spot-adjustments of the size. 

            In addition to the laces, a corset will also have a row of hooks or a zipper that serves to close the garment. If the closing mechanism consists of hooks, you will need to replace them. Hooks can open during dance numbers, leaving the actor exposed on stage. Remove both sides of the hooks, and replace them with a separating zipper.  The zipper should be the length of the seam you removed the hooks from. The hooks will probably be connected to a spine that is enclosed in the seam. If so, then you will need to rip out the seam on the enclosure, and remove the entire spine with the hooks attached. Then, re-sew the seam and insert the zipper as you would with any garment. 

              Replace the modesty panel with a stretch panel

              Corsets are attractive and accentuate almost any figure type. But they are very rigid garments that don’t allow for much movement. A corset will function much better for a dancer, or an actor with big moves, if stretch is added to the garment. 

              Most corsets come with an extra flap of fabric (called a modesty panel) under the laces. This panel is designed to provide some coverage to the wearer if the laces spread. To add stretch to the corset, I replace the modesty panel with a panel of stretch fabric. Here’s how:

              1. I remove the modesty panel by either ripping out the seam that attaches it to the corset, or cutting the flap very close to the stitching. (I prefer to remove it completely, to avoid adding extra bulk to the garment.)
              2. Next, I put the corset on the actor, close the zipper, and adjust the laces until the corset fits the actor correctly.
              3. Then I tie the laces in a secure knot and remove the corset from the actor using the zipper.
              4. Back in my sewing space, I cut a panel of stretch fabric the width of the laces opening + 5 inches, and the length of the corset + 4 inches.
              5. I place the stretch panel under the laces. I stretch the laces out flat, and sew the edges of the panel (by machine) to the corset, avoiding sewing through any boning or other hardware. If I can’t sew a straight seam and also avoid hardware, I tack the seam wherever I can.
              6. It is important to securely attach the stretch panel on both sides of the opening, so that a hard tug doesn’t pull the panel loose.
              7. I trim any extra fabric on the stretch panel to about ½ inch from the seam.
              8. Lastly, I trim the top and bottom of the stretch panel even with the corset

                Finishing the corset costume

                  To complete the corset for the murderess costumes, I added a 12-inch black sequin fringe around the bottom of each corset. I machine-sewed the solid edge of the fringe to the inside of the bottom edge of the corset. For the corsets that I added a stretch panel to, I ended the fringe on each side of the stretch panel. I did not attach fringe to this section.

                  For strapless corsets, I always add a strap of invisible elastic mesh This protects against wardrobe malfunctions while on stage. I attach each end of the strap to the top front edge of the corset, directly above the bust point on each side. The strap goes behind the neck, halter-style.

                    Wearing the corset costume

                      Loosen ribbons enough to get the corset on the actor, and, with the corset on the actor, close all fasteners except the ribbons (zippers, hooks, etc.). Then, pull the ribbons tight and securely tie a bow with a double knot. Assuming you’ve tied the bow at the top of the corset, if the ribbons hang past the bottom of the corset, trim the ribbon ends even with the bottom corset edge. After you get the fit you desire, leave the ribbons tied and take the corset on and off using the zipper and/or hooks.